Among the collection of texts that we’ve studied throughout the semester, Art Spiegelman’s Maus II stands out particularly for its structure. We’ve read texts that are presented as episodic vignettes, as narrative chapters and as a collection of short stories; however, Maus II is a powerful story completely presented by illustrations. There are still many groups in the contemporary world who subscribe to a type of revisionist history in which the Holocaust is viewed as a scam, as a created, fictional event. Partly because of its graphic novel form, Maus II presents the Holocaust as a reality that we cannot escape.
The story of Auschwitz and its liberation is revealed almost entirely through dialogue. Exchanges between Art and his father, Vladek, are tape recorded and in the text’s images, we see the author drawing (literally and metaphorically) from those conversations. Vladek is a witness to the horrors of Auschwitz and the details that he discloses provide credibility to Maus II. Despite the mouse-like appearance, we can see the expression on the faces of the characters. The picture on page 29 that shows Mandelbaum as a “mess” was very poignant for me. His disheveled, defeated state is clearly depicted with simple lines and without incredible detail, but his pain exudes from the page. The setting and the misery isn’t left up to interpretation but is visible in black and white. The use of only black, white and shades of gray adds even more depth to Maus II. The drawings are stark and fairly dismal. Spiegelman isn’t trying to sensationalize his father’s experience but wants it to be heard (and seen) in its bare, painful truth. There isn’t one character or scene that is given more importance with the addition of color. Readers are aware of the dark subject matter through the monotone images and accept the entire text as a unified portrayal of this subject. Although Art didn’t experience the Holocaust, the drawings of him and Francoise do not become any brighter. All of the generations are linked by a dark history just like all of the comic panels are linked in their lack of pigment.
Another unifying factor in Spiegelman’s illustrations is the use of animals in place of human characters. This metaphor becomes inescapable because of the graphic novel form: all people involved or brought into the Nazi system of extermination were dehumanized. These animals represent the racism intrinsic to the structures of Hitler’s Germany. These illustrations also reveal a less recognized aspect of the concentration camps and Nazism. Those who were imprisoned and killed were certainly seen as less than human, but other, more powerful actors were also manipulated into beasts by the acts they were trained and forced to carry out. The mice could be eaten by the vicious cats or Kapos, but they still all existed as part of the food chain.
Overall, the graphic novel medium through which Spiegelman chooses to communicate the realities of the Holocaust brings new dimensions to an infamous historic event and prevents his readers from escaping or denying the human experience of this crime.
Of the many things I’ve learned and reflected on throughout the semester, the relationship between physical travel and internal travel is one concept that has interested me. My journeys from one place to another, whether to Loyola, El Salvador, Spain or other locations, have always left me unsettled in the best way. Movement from a place of comfort to unknown territories has always challenged me to question—to question my realities in comparison to others’; to question often unrecognized global structures; to question the interconnectedness of humanity; to question my principles and ideals; to question my faith and my future goals. These “journeys of discovery” have been incredible, but this class has caused me to take greater notice of my everyday “travel” and the daily changes that occur within myself. I’ve come to recognize that trips involving airplanes or long car drives serve as catalysts for internal travel; however, this exploration of self occurs each time I engage in a classroom discussion, a new novel, a conversation or simple reflection. Travel doesn’t necessarily involve transit. It can (and does) take place within a simple, and even sedentary, self.